What would you do if doctors gave you 30 days to live? That’s the dilemma facing Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in this ’80s-set AIDS drama.
But this is no Bucket List and we’re a long way from Philadelphia. Indeed, the first 60 minutes resembles one of those ’70s Jack Nicholson films where the characters drink, swear and screw while life swirls heedlessly around them.
A scratchy son-of-a-bitch with sand-blasted vocal chords, colossal appetites and all manner of racist, reductive opinions, Woodroof is roaringly alive, although in his case it’s not a compliment – perhaps howlingly alive is nearer the mark.
We first meet him at the rodeo, shagging two unfussy local girls while the rider gets gored behind him. It’s a none-too-subtle metaphor – Ron’s about to get unseated by the raging bull between his legs too – but he can’t change his behaviour any more than the animal can.
When Dr Sevard (Denis O’Hare) tells him he’s got HIV, Woodroof threatens to “whip his fucking ass”. When he hears the 30-day verdict, a witty cut takes us to “Day One” – a grim orgy of booze, coke and trailer-trash sex.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) keeps this choppy rhythm going throughout so we never relax into the movie, just as Woodroof never relents, cycling through denial, terror – even praying – before wresting control of his treatment from the cynical Sevard and the more sympathetic Dr Saks (Jennifer Garner).
With the help of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender HIV-positive hustler, Woodroof starts the eponymous (illegal) drugs dispensary, selling fellow sufferers what they need to survive.
Providing the sweet to McConaughey’s salt, Leto brings a disarming gentleness to Rayon, who quietly wins Woodroof over, even if the Buyers Club remains chiefly a business rather than a charitable venture.
Both actors are magnificent, but as Woodroof starts to take on America’s medical establishment, the film shifts awkwardly from personal to political, losing some of its fire in the process. McConaughey never falters, but you’ll still find yourself softening towards Woodroof: a bad man, but a real one.
He may be selfish, prejudiced and unrepentant, but he never gives in, and as sickness makes him a walking skeleton, his sheer monumental bloody-mindedness starts to look more and more like heroism.
If not wholly convincing as an ‘issues’ movie, this memoir is a triumph as an actors’ showcase; with McConaughey and Leto giving the performances of their careers.